Three Things to Know: James Harden, Chris Paul combine for 60 to lead rout of Clippers

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) James Harden, Chris Paul combine for 60 to lead rout of Clippers in a potential first-round playoff preview. If you checked out our new “NBA playoff picture after” last night series this morning, you already know that if the playoffs started today the Los Angeles Clippers would be in Houston to take on the Rockets.

Houston sent a message Thursday that would be a short series.

James Harden led the way with 31 points, Chris Paul had 29, Clint Capela had 24 points and 15 rebounds, and the Rockets pulled away early and never looked back in a 135-103 win.

It was the kind of night where Chris Paul was even hitting 60 footers.

We all know the Rockets can score, but that was not the most impressive part of this win — their switching defense threw off the Clipper pick-and-roll heavy offense and smothered it.

The Clippers had an offensive net rating of 101 (points per 100 possessions) through the competitive portion of this game, that is 11.4 below their season average (stats via Cleaning the Glass). This is not something Houston just did in Los Angeles, in its last 10 games the Rockets have the second-best defense in the NBA. Houston is back to looking more like the Rockets of last season, the team that was up at halftime of Game 7 against the Warriors.

That was too much for Los Angeles.

The Clippers (who were without Patrick Beverley, for rest) are not going to be intimidated, they are not going to let one regular season game be a statement on a potential playoff matchup. This team plays too hard and is too well coached to just roll over.

However, when the Rockets play like this, they are contenders. And they are in a different class than the Clippers.

2) Orlando wins and is in, Miami loses and is out in the East. For now. The best race going in the NBA is for the final playoff spots in the East, and it got shaken up Wednesday night.

The Orlando Magic won, beating the Knicks 114-110, while Miami, Detroit, and Brooklyn all lost. That had the effect of moving Orlando past Miami into the final playoff spot in the East by half a game, tied with Brooklyn for the 7/8 seeds. Detroit is just half a game ahead of those two, Miami just half a game behind.

Nothing is set. That said Miami has the longest odds — fivethirtyeight.com has it at a 29 percent chance to make the playoffs — because it has the toughest schedule. The Heat play at the Timberwolves, then closes out with three playoff teams: at Toronto, Philadelphia, at Brooklyn. Orlando, by contrast, has surging Atlanta, is at Boston, then closes at Charlotte (just one playoff team in there). The more likely team to slide out of the playoffs and let Miami in is Brooklyn, which closes at Milwaukee, at Indiana, and then plays the Heat in what could be a huge game on the final night of the season.

The wild card in all this is rest — if when the Magic play the Celtics does Kyrie Irving or Al Horford get the night off for rest? When Brooklyn takes on Milwaukee will Giannis Antetokounmpo play? Those kinds of things could have huge swings in the race, and they are unpredictable.

It’s going to be a fun final week.

3) Gregg Popovich gets tossed 63 seconds into Spurs eventual loss to Nuggets. There was another potential first-round playoff matchup in the West Wednesday night, when the Denver Nuggets took on the San Antonio Spurs.

Gregg Popovich didn’t want to stick around and see it. Down 5-0 just 63 seconds into the game, Popovich called a timeout to argue some calls and got tossed for his trouble.

This isn’t a stat the NBA tracks, but it is believed to be the fastest ejection of a coach in NBA history (Flip Saunders did it in 66 seconds once).

Clearly, this bothered Popovich tremendously.

If this ends up being a first-round matchup, it should worry the Spurs. Nikola Jokic led Denver with 20 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists, the Nuggets had a season-high 41 assists, and the game was never in doubt as Denver won 113-85. Denver took all its frustrations from a tough night on Tuesday against Golden State out on San Antonio.

Watch Victor Wembanyama drop 30-point double-double in France

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Maybe you spent your Saturday afternoon watching Lionel Messi doing Lionel Messi things. Or intense college football rivalries.

In France, they spent part of the day watching Kylian Mbappe be brilliant but then flipped over and watched future No.1 pick Victor Wembanyama drop a 30-point double-double.

That’s two straight 30-point double-doubles for Wembanyama.

He will be the No.1 pick next June (barring something catastrophic), and teams are already thinking about the lottery next June.

Expect some other teams to jump in that mix at the bottom because the depth of this class goes well beyond just Wembanyama with Scoot Henderson, Amen Thompson and others. The tanking is coming people.

 

Boogie Cousins called Warriors GM Myers and got reality check on why he’s not in NBA

2022 NBA Playoffs - Denver Nuggets v Golden State Warriors
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DeMarcus Cousins didn’t understand why he didn’t have an NBA contract this season.

He thought he had proven he could help teams in need of front-line depth last season, first in Milwaukee when Brook Lopez was out following back surgery and gave them 9.1 points and 5.8 rebounds a game of solid play. The Bucks ultimately let Cousins go for financial reasons, so the Nuggets picked him up to backup Nikola Jokic. He was again solid, averaging 8.9 points and 5.5 rebounds a game (and he had a 31-point night against the Rockets).

Confused, he called one of the former GMs who brought him in, Bob Myers of the Golden State Warriors. Myers relayed their conversation on the All That Smoke podcast (via NBC Sports Bay Area).

“DeMarcus called me a month ago and he said, ‘Why am I not in the NBA?’ ” Myers told Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson on the “All The Smoke” podcast earlier this week. “And I said, ‘You want that answer? … Because people are afraid of how you’re going to act.’ And he’s like ‘Why?’ And I said, ‘Well whatever the reason is, it’s here now.’

“And I like DeMarcus. You guys may know him. He’s just, I can’t blame him for him because of all he’s been through.”

Not long after that conversation, Cousins spoke with Chris Haynes and said he learned from his past mistakes.

“Have I made mistakes? Absolutely. Have I done things the wrong way? Absolutely. For that, I’m very apologetic. But I’ve done even more things the correct way and I’ve done even more positive things compared to my negatives. I just don’t want those positives to be overlooked. And obviously, whenever it gets to the point where the negatives outweigh the positives, you should probably move away from him. That’s just how life goes. But I don’t believe I’m in that boat. I’m just asking for a chance to show my growth as a man and a player.”

Cousins also had physical issues, including a torn ACL that cost him a season with the Lakers in 2019-20. He also had domestic abuse allegations at the time (those charges were dropped a few months later).

Cousins just wants the chance to prove he is past all that and can help a team like he did last season. There have been rumors out of Taiwan that Cousins could join Dwight Howard in that league, but Cousins has not confirmed that. He still wants his shot in the NBA. So he waits, and hopes he can change the narrative around him.

Giannis Antetokounmpo says of Evan Mobley, ‘He can be better than me’

Cleveland Cavaliers v Milwaukee Bucks
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Evan Mobley hasn’t taken the leap forward in his second season many expected, partly because he has to adjust to playing with a new, dominant backcourt in Cleveland of Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland. Mobley is getting nearly five fewer touches a game and is not getting the same chances to use his off-the-bounce skills (73% of his shots this season come off zero or one-dribble) as he did when he was a rookie.

That doesn’t mean his superstar potential has gone away. Just ask Giannis Antetokounmpo, as Chris Fedor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer did.

“He can be better than me,” Antetokounmpo told cleveland.com in an exclusive interview while walking out of Fiserv Forum… “I don’t see why he can’t. It’s up to him. I will always try to improve. Every day. But he has the skill set to be a very, very good player. He’s 7-feet tall. He can move really well. He can shoot. He is very smart. As you said, he watches tapes of other players, which is very, very good for a young player. If he takes this seriously, he is going to be great.”

Better than Giannis? What could possibly make him say that?

“I didn’t average what he is in my second season, so he’s already ahead of me,” Antetokounmpo told cleveland.com. “It’s in his hands. If he stays humble, continues to work hard, focuses on the game and shows love to the game of basketball, he is going to be really good.”

One of the players Mobley is known to study on tape is Antetokounmpo. Of course, mirroring the force and athleticism Antetokounmpo plays with is next to impossible, but Mobley has the skill set that could see him become a shot-creator and scorer on the wing with the ball.

The Cavaliers don’t need him to be that with Garland improving and Michell being better than advertised. Cleveland has a top-five offense and hasn’t had to turn to Mobley for more scoring and shot creation. But that can change, especially come the playoffs against the strong defenses of teams such as the Bucks and Celtics. Ultimately, how far these Cavaliers can go in the postseason over the next few years could come down to the growth of Mobley on the offensive end.

Antetokounmpo believes Mobley could be special in that role, which should give fans in Cleveland even more hope.

 

Watch Giannis throw down career-high nine dunks, score 38 in comeback win over Cavaliers

Cleveland Cavaliers v Milwaukee Bucks
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MILWAUKEE — Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks taught the Cleveland Cavaliers a lesson in playoff-type intensity well before the start of December.

Antetokounmpo scored 38 points and the Bucks capitalized on a 23-2 run in the first eight-plus minutes of the third quarter to rally past Cleveland 117-102 on Friday night to snap the Cavaliers’ four-game winning streak.

Milwaukee came back from a 16-point deficit by outscoring the Cavaliers 35-10 in the third period. The Bucks hadn’t outscored a team by such a wide margin in a single quarter since Jan. 4, 2019, when they outscored the Atlanta Hawks 43-14 in the opening period of a 144-112 victory.

“We had a little bit of luck on our side and were able to knock down some shots and get downhill and were able to get that momentum and keep it going,” said Antetokounmpo, who also had nine rebounds and six assists. “I think it started from our guards defending the pick-and-roll and Brook (Lopez) just contesting every shot on the defensive end.”

The Cavaliers hadn’t scored less than 15 points in any quarter this season before Friday.

“They turned it up to a level that we haven’t seen, that we haven’t experienced,” said Donovan Mitchell, who led he Cavaliers with 29 points. “That’s playoff basketball, and understanding that they’re going to turn up the physicality (and) everything has to be sharper, everything has to be more precise.”

Darius Garland added 20 for Cleveland. After combining to shoot 14 of 26 and score 38 points in the first half, Mitchell and Garland went 4 of 16 for 11 points over the final two periods.

Cleveland’s Jarrett Allen played only 12 minutes and scored one point before leaving with a hip injury.

The Cavaliers lost for the first time since their last visit to Milwaukee, a 113-98 Bucks victory on Nov. 16.

“We were trying so hard, and we were like running in quicksand,” Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff said of the second-half struggles.

Jevon Carter scored 18 points and Bobby Portis had 14 for the Bucks.

After trailing 63-52 at halftime, the Bucks turned the game around in the third quarter.

“It felt like us again,” Portis said. “I feel like for the last couple of games, we haven’t felt like ourselves, for real, missing a lot of shots and just not playing how we play.”

Jrue Holiday, who committed three fouls in the first 1 1/2 quarters, scored his first points of the game in the opening minute of the third. He followed that up with a 3-pointer.

Carter then found Antetokounmpo for a dunk, though Antetokounmpo missed a free throw that would have given him a three-point play. Mitchell scored to extend Cleveland’s lead to 65-59, but a Brook Lopez 3-pointer and an Antetokounmpo dunk cut the lead to one.

Lopez then recorded one of his six blocks to set up an Antetokounmpo 3-pointer that gave the Bucks their first lead of the night with 7:19 left in the third. The Bucks eventually led by as many as 22.

“This is a great lesson for us,” Bickerstaff said. “We played against an established team who knows where they need to go when they need to take it to another level. That’s what we’re learning. They took the game to playoff-level physicality, and those are things we have to learn how to compete against.”